Now that voters in two states have taken the historic step of legalizing marijuana, perhaps it's a good time to talk about repealing another widely ignored and unevenly enforced law: talking on a cellphone while driving.
Not texting while driving, which common sense tells us is hazardous and which some studies have shown is right up there with driving while intoxicated as a good way to get yourself or someone else killed, but talking.
For the record, I am making this case as a driver who routinely ignores his cellphone when it goes off or who will have his passenger answer it and tell the caller that I will call back when I am not driving. But based on what I see on the roads, I am in a minority that is so small as to be statistically insignificant.
When states began outlawing the practice of talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving, it was to protect people from the dangers of distracted motor vehicle operators.
But with dashboards beginning to resemble cockpit control panels, it's laughable to suggest that we can prevent people from being distracted by outlawing only one of the dozens of distractions.
Look inside most automobiles built in the last five years and, at minimum, you will find a radio with the capability to program at least 18 channels and a scan button to find all the others; multiple cup-holders so people have a place to put their extra large hot beverage between sips; a CD player; a GPS system; an auxiliary outlet that can be used to run a wire to an MP3 player; and a power outlet into which a laptop computer, DVD player or other electronic device can be plugged.
That's just the gadgetry that distracts us. This doesn't account for the number of people who eat, shave, apply makeup, play air guitar or daydream while driving, all of which are perfectly legal.
In New York, we are allowed to talk on our cellphones while driving if we use a hands-free device. But as others have pointed out, it's not the holding of the phone that's a problem, but the attention we divert away from the road to the conversation that can lead to trouble. The same argument can be made about singing along with the radio or chatting with the other people in the car, but we're not trying to legislate those practices away.
Further, statistics do not show a clear link between the passage of cellphone regulations and safer highways. A 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute compared insurance claims for crash damage in three states and the District of Columbia, and found no reductions in crashes after bans on the use of hand-held phones while driving took effect. The findings perplexed researchers. “If crash risk increases with phone use and fewer drivers use phones where it's illegal to do so, we would expect to see a decrease in crashes. But we aren't seeing it,” said Adrian Lund, president of the institute.
One hypothesis is that in the time that researchers studied the issue, more devices were added to vehicles and the attention no longer being paid to the phone was elsewhere.
Government officials had their hearts in the right places when they backed this law, but what they're trying to do is prevent people from behaving thoughtlessly when they get behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, there hasn't been a law passed yet that can do that.